This post originally appeared on Alison’s blog, Land of the Blind, and is reprinted here with permission.
Development workers are living developed lives. Getting out into the romantically portrayed “field” is a rarity, a special opportunity, something to be bragged about over the internet. Although development workers are mostly working on rural development issues (in most developing countries a majority of the population is rural and depends on agriculture for livelihoods), they are living in the cities, far from those they are supposed to “develop.” The separation between cities and the countryside is not only geographical, but also cultural. How then can development workers in the cities know how to resolve issues affecting their “beneficiaries” in a faraway land?
To be most effective, development workers need to go to the field and stay there.
Working in the field would give development workers an opportunity to have a new lifestyle, localize their experiences and knowledge, cut costs, and ultimately give them the ability to do their jobs and deliver aid more effectively and efficiently.
There is very little information on this, but I think all of we development workers can agree that most of us live in city centres packed with expats of all shapes and sizes. It is unclear how this happened.
From higher-up academic-y levels that often influence how we do our jobs, some have argued that NGOs need to be close to country power centers in the city. Ironically, decentralization is now widely promoted as a vital component to “good governance” and “democracy-building.” And in developing countries where rule of law is often lacking, the top-down, state-centered approach tends not to work anyway. This point alone has made up many a doctoral thesis.
NGOs continue to perpetuate concentration of power in city centres due to their inability to communicate with local governments. International aid workers’ largely urban presence legitimizes undue power-wielding by national authorities and perpetuates the unequal development progress they are supposedly mitigating.
Theoretical issues aside (this is just a blog entry, after all), development workers’ distance from the field is problematic from the most practical point of view. The field is where the people are and where the culture is. We’ve all bragged about our Western “efforts” to “get down with the people” and “be more local,” which, in the cities, is much more difficult to do.
Development workers believe they are making an effort by taking a language course once a week with friends during their two-hour lunch breaks. They claim they love the local cuisine because they have a cheap set meal with English-speaking co-workers a few times a week in an open-air restaurant. They are so close to the local people because they had a five-minute conversation with their English-speaking landlady last night. Of course, this is all a cynical exaggeration, but there is some truth to it.
Locals know what’s up
Our best resources are the people affected by the projects we are trying to implement, and most likely these people are not in the city. International development workers’ main cultural and human resources are their local co-workers in their white-walled, air-conditioned offices. When working on issues affecting disadvantaged populations, however, local development workers are not omniscient. They too have a geographical and class distance from the populations that NGO projects tend to target.
From my experiences in Asia, getting at the root of the problem takes time and intimacy with the local people and culture in “the field” – a field visit or two is not enough. A person can ask as many questions as they possibly can think up over a three-day period and not get a straight answer that touches on the real issue. Situations are most effectively and thoroughly assessed through everyday relationships, through which free-flow, long-term conversations can take place.
The result of this would be actual outcomes, realistic approaches, improved partnerships and lines of communication, and generally more effective projects. (Not to mention the theoretical decentralization advantages of giving local governance a voice, see above.) The field gives easy access to our most knowledgeable informant: the beneficiary.
Culture is good for you
Sure, living in the field is difficult. I’m an extrovert, and the quiet of the countryside has sometimes felt isolating. I’ve been frustrated by cultural working differences. The internet speed leaves something to be desired. I crave a good burger every once in a while. Yeah, life is so hard.
Some might argue that because life in the field lacks pristine living conditions and Western-ish salaries, it might not appeal to the best and brightest. The assumption here, however, is that development workers have the same motivations as those that go into other lines of work, i.e., money.
On the contrary, many fellow aid workers I know came into this line of work wanting to accomplish the cliché but genuine goal of “helping people.” I’ve heard many development workers say how they were surprised, and even felt guilty, at the Western form their foreign lives have taken. They generally eat the same food, hang with similar people, and spend their days typing over their computers without breaking a sweat, much like they did in their home countries.
Many aid workers I know are not satisfied with this lifestyle– they recognize their distance from the “beneficiary,” shamelessly and blatantly noting the ineffectiveness of their own work. Many took on aid jobs expecting them to be more local or exotic, but city life sucks them into an international lifestyle, increasing their distance from the people they came to help. Although it is “difficult” to live and work in the field, at the same time, many aid workers in the city crave the experience.
Development jobs should fulfill their expectations and send them to the field.
The added bonus is that administrative costs would be greatly reduced. Office spaces in the field are exponentially cheaper than in the city. Overhead would further plummet when you cut out field visits and per diem expenses, which spoil us (get real people, we’ve all pocketed per diem money). Due to decreased living expenses, international salaries could also be reduced. Donors, are you drooling yet?
Western people flock to Western things, and some might argue that all of this will only bring Western food, lodging, and entertainment (in its worst forms) into the field. Studies have shown that people prefer to associate with people and places that reaffirm who they already are. This argument assumes that development workers may always prefer distance from local customs and populations, preferring instead to associate with each other over three dollar cappuccinos.
This may be true for some people that work in development, but much like we came into this field to help people, we also did it because we love living in a totally different place, we are fascinated by cultural differences, we enjoy ethnic foods, and, again, we have a heart for the disadvantaged. If this fact isn’t enough, development jobs could be re-drawn to attract people who are dedicated and passionate about foreign culture, language, and people, not just wanting an opportunity to be cool living in a city where they can have a fancy Western lifestyle. Job advertisements should promote cultural intimacy from the beginning.
Living in the field is sometimes difficult , but it is not agonizing. It is always possible to fill some of my Western desires (a lady I know at the market always sells peanut butter). At the same time, being deprived of the opportunity to eat a burger over English conversation every night has made my experience much more enriching. It didn’t hurt, either; the countryside life easily drew me in once I let it.
As for the rest of us still in the cities, we must make a concerted effort to resist our every Western whim and try to our best to get in touch with the local culture –that is, until the donors buck up and put us where we belong. Send them to the field!
Update 27 July
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